The woman in the frilly red top was sporting a frozen rictus of a grin as she desperately jammed half a head of broccoli into the Super Magic Mind-blowing Bonanza Blender. Or whatever it was called.
“Broccoli rice!” she exclaimed, jabbing at the buttons and making the blender scream. Her arms were shaking violently as she tried to keep it on the table. The camera zoomed in on the contents of the blender jug, which looked a lot like the stuff that kid from the exorcist redecorated her room with. The woman stopped the blender and opened the lid to display the contents for the camera, her smile looking ever more stretched. Ben thought any rice that looked like that would probably have attained consciousness. He took another mouthful of vodka as the woman jammed the lid back on.
“Broccoli puree!” The blender started screaming again. Her upper body strength must be quite remarkable, because it definitely looked like the Super Magic whatchama was trying to make a break for it. Ben’s eyelids slid to half-mast, and he tried to hike them back up again. He wasn’t at all sure he was drunk enough to sleep through the night yet.
Five easy payments! the text at the bottom of the screen screamed. Don’t miss out!
Who bought this stuff? How was it even worth their while, paying the desperate woman with the funny hair to stand there with the painfully yowling blender? How desperate must she be, to do it?
And how desperate was he, sitting here watching it?
He woke with a sticky mouth, but no pounding head. Not yet, that’d come later. But he was awake, which was annoying as hell. He’d fallen asleep too soon. He picked up his glass – there was still a good inch of vodka in the bottom – and shifted position on the couch. The broccoli woman was gone, and instead there was some mystic lady with white hair and a purple – kaftan? Was that a kaftan? He wasn’t actually sure he’d ever seen a kaftan. Weirdly, she was in the same kitchen broccoli woman had been in. She’d thrown a deep red cloth over the display counter, and Ben could see a spill of crushed broccoli on the pallid surface where the cloth didn’t cover it. The woman adjusted her hoop earrings, wincing as they caught in her mass of white hair, then squinted at the screen. Well, the camera. Although it kind of felt like she was looking at the screen. At him.
“Dany,” the woman said, and Ben realised she must be reading off an autoprompter. “Dany, are you with us?”
A text box appeared in the top right of the screen. Yes, yes, I’m here!
Holy hell, was she pretending to communicate with ghosts via text message? Ben giggled. And he thought he had problems.
“Dany, tell me your wish. All wishes will be granted, but be careful. The old saying is true.”
The text box didn’t respond for a moment, the cursor flashing uneasily, white against black. It looked like something out of a 90’s chatroom.
“Dany, there are others waiting.”
I want my husband back.
The woman nodded, lowering her head to look at the red cloth. It had gold symbols painted on it, and it clashed horribly with her purple dress thingy. “You must use the words.”
Ben suddenly imagined a gang of goblins hiding under the table, holding the woman’s hubby captive while David Bowie sang at them and flourished his crop. He almost spat his drink out.
I wish my husband would come back.
The cursor flashed violently at the end of the words, and Ben shivered, the laughter dusty in his mouth. Poor woman. What was she paying the old witch for this? And here she was playing with loss like a damn game show.
“As you wish, so it shall be,” the woman said gravely, and there was no flash of light, no puff of smoke, but Ben found himself leaning forward, shoulders suddenly tense under his ears.
When? When will he come back? How?
“Now she asks,” Ben muttered, and dug through the sofa cushions until he found the vodka bottle. Idiot woman. But grief makes fools of us all.
Mystic lady shook her head. “I can’t give you a time. But he’s coming. I feel him. He will be with you.”
The cursor flashed a few times before it said, As he is now, or as he was before?
Ben shuddered, although he couldn’t have said why.
“I can’t say. But you wanted him back, so back he comes.”
Ben thought he caught a flicker of something in the woman’s voice – malice? Amusement? Or was he imagining it, half-cut as he was?
“And now we must move on,” the woman said. “If you’d like to text in, the number is on the screen. Calls cost 50p a minute. Please make sure you have the permission of the bill payer. Only one wish per person. All wishes are granted. No responsibility is taken if you make an unsuitable wish or change your mind.”
All wishes are granted. Ben swallowed hard. What would he wish for? Would he wish her back? No, not after what she’d done. And with her personal trainer, of all people. Brain the size and complexity of a pink marshmallow, but of course all six-pack and bulging muscles. No, he didn’t want her back. He was angry and drunk and miserable, but he could still see it’d only happen again. Maybe he could wish her fat. Or muscle boy. That’d be pretty funny.
“Scott,” the woman was saying gravely, “Please tell me your wish.”
I want to go to Mars, to be light-years away from anyone.
The woman nodded. “If this is your wish, please use the words.”
I wish I was on Mars.
“As you wish, so it shall be.” The woman straightened the sleeves of her kaftan while the cursor blinked in its box. “Who do we have next?”
Ben stared at the cursor, willing Scott to say something, to ask when he’d get to go to Mars, to say thank you, anything. Anything except that ominous, hungry cursor, waiting to deliver the next texter to the Goblin King.
There was nothing. Scott was gone.
Not to Mars, of course not, that was impossible, but he was gone. Mars would be cold. Cold and suffocating and lonely in the moments before Scott died. Would his blood vessels burst out of his unprotected skin? Would his eyes bulge like hardboiled eggs? Would he have time to regret his wish? Would – Ben drained his glass in two gulps, cursing his stupid mind and his stupid imagination. Bet muscle boy never had that problem.
Kaftan lady was asking someone called Glen if he would use the words to complete his wish of winning the office Fantasy Football league when Ben dragged his attention back to the screen. That was pretty innocuous, if a bit of a waste of a wish. The next person wanted a Rolex, and whinged a lot about how he wanted to know when it’d arrive, until Mystic Madge cut him off. Ben wasn’t entirely paying attention. What would he wish for?
Maybe wishing the gym bunny couple fat was a bit nasty. Not that he felt above being a bit nasty, not after what she’d done, but it didn’t do anything for him. So what if he wished something for himself? Something to make her jealous, sorry she’d left. Something to make muscle boy feel a little inadequate. Yeah, that’d be good.
He grinned, leaning back and putting his feet on the coffee table. Not that he was actually going to text in, of course. He wasn’t that desperate. Or that drunk.
“And we only have time for a few more wishes,” the woman said, pushing her hair back with fragile-looking hands. Ben wasn’t sure how many wishes he’d missed, but it didn’t feel like that many. She was stopping already? Why so quickly? He leaned forward, frowning at the TV, wondering if he’d dozed off, or maybe even blacked out for a bit, although he didn’t think he’d had enough for that. He wasn’t Friday night drunk, just weeknight-damn-insomnia drunk.
“Please text in immediately, if you would like your wish granted,” the woman said, raising her eyes to the camera. Again Ben had the feeling that she was looking right at him, seeing him sitting there still in his work clothes, curry spilt on the collar of his shirt. “Don’t wait. This opportunity will not be repeated. Normal programming will resume. There will be no second chances.”
No second chances. Although he didn’t want a second chance. Not with her. No, he wanted – what did he want?
The phone was in his hand, and he typed the number in with one eye squinted shut. It couldn’t hurt, right? 50p on his phone bill, and this was probably cathartic. It was the sort of thing he’d advise a client to do, attain closure through writing letters that would never be sent, or cleaning and rearranging the house to reclaim it, or acting out some other ritual of farewell. So, this was his. He’d make the wish that would do nothing, but he’d believe that if it did work, they’d both be jealous of him. Maybe she’d even regret leaving, but that had been her choice, just as it had been his choice to drink himself to sleep on the couch every night for the last two weeks. And, most importantly, he’d know he hadn’t wished for her back.
“Ben,” the woman on the TV said, and he froze. There couldn’t be many people texting in, if he’d got straight through. “Ben, tell me your wish.”
I want bigger muscles than my ex’s new boyfriend, he typed, feeling shallow and ridiculous. He hit send, and the text appeared on the screen immediately. That was risky. Imagine if someone sent something they needed to censor.
“Use the words, Ben,” the woman said, and her brown gaze seemed to lock with his.
He swallowed, his thumbs lingering over the keys. This was ridiculous. He could dress it up all he wanted, but it was just some petty fantasy. Imagine if his patients heard of this? Worse, his colleagues?
“Ben. We’re almost out of time. Yours is the last wish. Normal programming will resume. There will be no second chances.”
Well, what the hell. Even if anyone he knew was pathetic enough to be sitting up like he was, what were the odds they’d know it was him? And it wasn’t going to work. He wasn’t going to turn up tomorrow with muscles bulging out of his shirt.
He used the words.
Ben woke with a sore back, a mouthful of glue, and a brass band playing in his skull. He rolled off the couch and staggered to the bathroom, the events of the night before muddled in his head. There had been a woman juicing broccoli to send to Mars? A blender that granted wishes? Someone’s dead husband coming back? No, missing. Had to be missing.
Also had to be a dream.
He clambered into the shower and turned it as cold as he could stand it, shivering in the deluge, and decided that this was the last week of moping. If these were his thought patterns, things were getting out of control.
Some vigorous toothbrushing and liberal applications of Listerine, deodorant and cologne later, he made it into the car. He felt reasonably human, but not even a double dose of ibuprofen and paracetamol would stop the clanging in his head. He chugged a migraine pill before he pulled away, knowing he’d taken too much paracetamol already, but hoping the codeine would do the trick. His head didn’t even hurt that much, it just sounded as if a high school trumpeter had taken up residence in there. He was never going to be able to concentrate if it didn’t ease off. At least he didn’t have any patients until ten. He should catch up on reports, but he’d snooze in his chair instead. He’d be fine.
The noise in his head didn’t abate, although it was a little quieter while he was sat in the car. Moving seemed to exacerbate it. He parked up outside his offices and got out, keeping every movement as gentle as possible. His head bellowed at him, and he tottered to the back door, not even diverting to the little cafe across the road for a coffee. He’d make do with the office stuff. He just needed to get himself sat down and he’d be fine. He’d be just fine –
Why was Simon talking so loudly? He was just about shouting, and Ben’s head was already reverberating with noise.
“Morning. Is that a new ringtone? Can you turn it down?” Simon sounded uneasy, worried, and Ben supposed he had a right to be – he could feel the sweat rising on his face, nausea not far behind. But – ringtone?
“What d’you mean?”
“The brass band thing you’ve got going on. Ben, are you okay?”
He put a hand to his head gingerly, and the noise changed note. It really did sound like trumpets, but played by someone – or a whole group of someones – who had only the faintest idea of rhythm and had never looked at a sheet of music in their life. “You can hear that?”
“Of course I can.” Simon left the reception desk and approached Ben. “Do you need to sit down?”
“I – yes. In my office. I’ll sit down in my office.” He shied away from the older man and staggered down the hall, past the other therapists’ offices and into his own, pushing the door clumsily to behind him and groping for his chair with his eyes half shut. Not that it helped. But sitting – yes, sitting went from a band to quartet.
Ben considered this for a moment, then slid off the chair, ignoring a blare of experimental jazz as interpreted by toddlers, and lowered himself gently to the floor. The toddlers eased off, leaving just a couple of trumpets tootling softly, something you might hear a busker attempting.
He stared at the ceiling, noticing a cobweb in one corner. He’d have to mention that to the cleaner. He wondered how long this might last, this migraine, these auditory hallucinations. Auditory hallucinations Simon could hear. He closed his eyes and willed the trumpeters to stop.
There was a soft knock on the door, and Ben endured an enthusiastic blare of noise as he craned his head to look at Simon.
“I brought you some water,” the receptionist said. “Have you had breakfast?”
“No,” Ben whispered.
“The noise is still there.”
“I know.” His words were all but swallowed by the horns.
“Would you like me to check your phone?”
“Sure.” Ben stayed motionless while Simon fished the phone out of his coat pocket, then rocked back on his heels to check it.
“You’ll have to unlock it.”
Ben took the phone carefully and drew the unlock across the screen, his hand trembling as the trumpets upped their jagged tempo. The phone opened to a text screen, and he stared at it through watering eyes. Simon reached to take the phone, and Ben tightened his grip, staring.
All wishes are granted. No responsibility is taken if you make an unsuitable wish or change your mind.
All wishes are granted.
The black text stared back at him stolidly.
All wishes are granted.
Even those made on TV by white-haired women in kaftans, with not a Goblin King in sight.
All wishes are granted.
He let Simon take the phone and switch it off. He didn’t need to look at the text any longer. The words were burned into his mind.
I wish I had bugling muscles.
He closed his eyes and listened to the trumpets playing the ragged tune of his heart.